Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

The Critics: Documentary Distributors’ Best Friends

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Do you know who a documentary distributor’s best friend is? The film critic, that’s who.

Take a look at 2010′s ten best reviewed films of the year at rottentomatoes.com:

  1. Marwencol
  2. Waste Land
  3. GasLand
  4. Toy Story 3
  5. How to Train Your Dragon
  6. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  7. The Social Network
  8. Inside Job
  9. Mugabe and the White African
  10. Animal Kingdom

Six out of ten are documentaries! If this is a surprise to you, it shouldn’t be. This year is no aberration. I used to edit a critics’ poll of the favorite films of the year, and, inevitably, a documentary or animated film, would be at the top. (But last year was particularly impressive, with docs garnering the top three slots.)

Why is this? Well, it’s because critics are human beings. (Hard to believe, I know.) In fact, they are human beings with big, often soft, hearts. (Harder to believe, I know.) So, when they sit down to watch a hundred to two hundred movies in any given year, they watch them on a sliding scale. The ones that are about something tend to get a more generous review. They will watch a documentary about injustice with a more forgiving eye than, say, the latest Will Smith vehicle. It’s a conspiracy in our favor: film critics are biased to give documentaries the benefit of the doubt.

Am I complaining? No. Do I think Marwencol really is a better made film than True Grit? Do I think critics think so? Not at all. Still, it’s at number one, while True Grit is down at number 14. It’s partly to do with the nature of creating a “consensus” around films. The docs and animated films tend to benefit from this process because fewer critics are willing to bash a film from either of these genres, unless it’s really bad. On the other hand, critics can have particular likes and dislikes, and some feature filmmakers or stars tend to rub them the wrong way.

So, rock on film critics; keep grading docs on a curve. They need all the help they can get.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • @docunews

    Your point is well taken, but the relationship between film critic and film producer/distributor can also veer into the corrupt, for example if they have an undisclosed longstanding personal relationship. A former Doc Mogul and NY Film Critics Circle Pres. allegedly engaged in such conduct for years.

  • NotWaitingforSuperman

    The story alleging possible corruption arising from an affair between a documentary company executive producer and her film critic lover was posted for a long time by a blogger who felt they had created a misleading film about NY teachers. A version of the story, subsequently removed from the news site, but apparently based upon undisputed information and public records, can still be located the internet Wayback machine at: http://web.archive.org/web/20120905214844/http://transparencynewsservice.tumblr.com/

  • Mavis Cohen

    That was a scandal from a couple of years back — recall that it involved Participant Exec. Producer Diane Weyermann and film critic John Anderson. He hasn’t reviewed any of her Participant documentary films for news publication since then.

  • DB Smallman

    The comments below by Ms. Cohen, NotWaiting for Superman, and Docunewsroundup are off-topic, refer to unconfirmed, old or disparaging information, or refer to subject matter irrelevant to the article itself. The source of the references were long ago removed from the internet and the information retracted by the news source that posted it. I would respectfully request that Mr. Roston and POV consider deleting those comments from this thread. While there is room for legitimate debate on the internet, the references to specific individuals and companies in the above-referenced comments are invalid, disrespectful, and do not contribute to the important topics discussed or the debate about documentary distributors and film critics. Thank you.

  • sundanceobserver

    There does appear to be some sort of link between critic support and box office outcomes. http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/B/Suman.Basuroy-1/files/7.pdf From looking at the previous comments, it is difficult to assess the objectivity of the commentators. But it does look like Producer Diane Weyermann and film critic John Anderson did try to game the system, and if so, why didn’t anyone notice it — Participant had 4 or 5 films only a few years after she ran the documentary fund there. Doesn’t seem like a cooincidence. And she had her boyfriend writing super favorable film reviews of her films? Come on….

  • SundanceObserver

    Oops, URL isn’t showing up, but readers of Tom’s piece should Google
    “box office results and critic reviews”–the links show some of the
    articles about how positive critic reviews can affect box office
    results. There appears to be some history of attempted manipulation by
    Hollywood studios, but results aren’t too clear. Tom’s post about how
    positive critic reviews affect the success of documentaries provides
    some really interesting new evidence about the correlation between
    reviews and distributor’s success for documentaries in a crowded field.
    Pretty odd if companies like Participant and Sundance were involved,
    but Diane Weyermann had a reputation for sharp elbows as an exec.
    producer so if she tried to help her films by arranging for initial
    positive reviews, it would be fairly clever if she was never caught and
    no rules were broken. Were they?